The following post is part of "The Conversation Project" - a series of interviews with influencers in the contemporary art world.
Adam Simon is a Brooklyn-based artist. He's the co-founder and co-director of Four Walls, which was an artist-run exhibition space and artists forum in Hoboken, New Jersey and Williamsburg, Brooklyn from 1984 to 1998. He was also the initiator of the Fine Art Adoption Network (FAAN), which promotes the dissemination of artworks and demographic expansion of art ownership through art adoption. The project is ongoing with over 350 artists having participated and over 2400 registered adopters. Adam has an upcoming solo show of his new paintings at Studio 10 in May.
Brett Wallace: What was your origin in art?
Adam Simon: I was this kid that drew all the time. And, somebody who came to our house for dinner or something, told a Boston artist named Hyman Bloom about me. He’s not as well known now, although there has been some attention to his work recently. But, de Kooning, and Pollock admired him. He had been mentored by an artist at a community center in Boston when he was a kid and in order for him to be taught by the guy, he had to promise to do the same thing when he was a professional artist. Like, he would… find, you know, a deserving student. So he took me on and it was a non-paying thing, and it was… It was great. Anyway, so, he was a real artist and … I kind of fell in love with the whole thing. Plus, I have an uncle who is an artist who was actually put on trial for blasphemy in South Africa for an artwork of his, which is an amazing thing, if you think about it, in the 20th Century…like, outside of the Middle East, to have somebody tried for blasphemy for artwork.
BW: And when did you start creating work?
AS: So, from the time of being a kid, I thought of myself as an artist. And, when I say that, it’s not, like, bragging, because I actually think of it as a mixed bag. I mean, it was nice to have an identity, in that way, but it also meant that at some point, later on, looking back, I thought –– Well, did you ever actually decide to be an artist, or was this just, an assumption about you that you never questioned? And, I think that, you know, I could probably do a little psychoanalysis on that, if I was inclined to, but…
BW: What type of artist do you think of yourself as?
AS: Well, this is a tough one to answer, because there is a tag that I’ve been getting, but I’m not sure that I like it, you know. It’s “Conceptual painter.” I don’t really like the term very much, but if you’re looking for a shortcut to describe what you do, it, kind of, works, I guess. I tend to paint in series, and they’re usually sort of idea-based. There’s a show coming up that’s based on corporate logos.
BW: Where and when will it be?
AS: Studio 10 in Bushwick in May.
BW: Which artists do you connect with?
AS: Oh, there are different people that I could say. I mean, Christopher Wool is somebody that I went to school with and I’ve followed his career pretty closely, and I think he’s a very interesting painter. Luc Tuymans is somebody that I’m very interested in. There’s a lot of love for people like Guston, and de Kooning. The ghost of Ellsworth Kelly is, actually, going to figure pretty prominently in my show. And, there’s Goya.
BW: How about Velazquez?
AS: Velasquez. Las Meninas. Yeah. One of my favorite painters happens to be the person I live with - Michele Araujo. I just went to Amy Sillman’s opening last night, and I think she’s a really interesting painter.
BW: I’m looking at the stencils on the wall behind you. I think I see the Twitter logo and the Arm & Hammer logo. This is serendipitous, but I was working on a cutout of the “like” symbol from Facebook earlier today.
AS: Well, in that interview with you that I read, you talked about often starting with digital information for your work.
BW: Yes. I have a process that ingests forms from the digital universe and re-imagines them with wood, paint and installation.
On your studio wall, I see symbols for Puma, McDonald’s, Kellogg’s, PBS, Nike, Twitter. I don’t know what that one is.
AS: That’s Firefox.
BW: It creates an interesting guessing game of sorts to make sense of these logos.
AS: Yeah, it’s going to be more of a guessing game in the show, because I’m abstracting them. The dark one in the middle is the Twitter logo, but it’s been used for its abstract possibilities.
BW: What triggered working with these images?
AS: It’s a progression. This is my third solo show at Studio 10. The first show was all paintings based on stock photography - images that I was grabbing. And, that goes way back to before the Internet, because I worked in a lot of production departments at magazines. And so, there were always these catalogues around which had stock photos. When I had a lot of down time, I would take an X-Acto knife and cut stencils out of acetate or Mylar using the people in the catalogues. And so, I started this collection of stencils, based on stock photography. And, like, that’s a little stock photo painting on that wall.
BW: Yeah. You can see people doing activities, walking with their umbrellas etc.
AS: Right. Right. I could riff on what makes me interested in stock photography. It has to do with ideas about genericism. And, also, the illusion of uniqueness that we all carry around with us, you know? And, like, this situation that we’re experiencing right now, is probably being duplicated within a ten-mile radius, 500 times.
BW: Two people having conversation over coffee, sharing their work in a studio.
AS: Maybe even recorded…And, if you took them all, and you did some kind of meta-analysis on them, you might find that there was a lot of similarity, regardless of what profession is being looked at. I did a conversation series years ago. That was one of the things that interested me about talking to you because you’re doing this now, and you’re doing it in a very different time. When I did them, it was in the early ‘90s, and we did them as public performances. So, it would be, like, two artists talking in front of an audience. But the thing that… My emphasis was that it had to be a conversation, not an interview. In this case, I’m doing most of the talking, which makes it more of an interview. So, I should talk less. But, I have to answer your questions, so…
BW: I think of this as a conversation (where I try to listen much more than speaking).
AS: The first solo show I had at Studio 10 was all stock photo-based work, which I had been doing for quite a while. Only I wanted… I decided I wanted a still life in the show, like, a big painting of a... So, I was looking at all the options for the stock photo. Not a still life, a vase of flowers. And, I found them all really difficult to think of actually working on a painting using that image. And, my friend, Cathy Quinlan said, “You know what? You should look at Dutch flower painting from the 17th century.” I ended up taking one of those, and using it to make a very large, abstracted flower painting. And then that led me from stock photos into working with art historical images. So, I was stealing iconic images from art history, including contemporary stuff. Like, I used Charles Ray’s sculpture of the family, the naked family. The one where the mother, and the father, the brother and sister are all the same size; and they’re all naked.
BW: So, the first show was based on stock imagery. What was the second show based on?
AS: So, the second show was all art history. So then, what happened at the art history show, I did a talk, and at the talk, somebody said, “These are, kind of, like logos.” They were images from art history, but somebody said, “These are, kind of, like logos.” And, then I started thinking about the difference between the art history images that some of us carry around in our heads and the logos that way more people carry around in their heads. And there’s a, kind of, way of identifying with these images that is so much greater with logos than it is with art history, which tends to be an elite audience right?
BW: Where does your fascination with the identifiable emblem (logo, stock image etc) come from?
AS: It gets complicated…I almost think it’s psychoanalytic, again. It goes back to what I said a little while ago about looking back at the fact that I identified as an artist from such an early age. And, thinking about the relationship between identifying as an artist, and the idea of uniqueness. The idea of being the hyper-individual in society. And, that led me to thinking about genericism in life, which is not necessarily a negative thing; that it can actually be seen as a kind of, freedom, in a way. Before I ever got involved with stock photography, I got to a point where I just couldn’t make paintings by starting with a blank canvas.
BW: That reminds me how Rauschenberg would cover the surfaces of his paintings with newspapers so there was no actual beginning point to his marks.
AS: Right. And for me it had to be something not me. Like, even if you, like, throw some paint on there, it’s you throwing the paint. Right? So, as much as you want to start with something that feels arbitrary, it’s hard to do that unless you take from somewhere else. Something pre-existing.
BW: There’s a point in these works where the corporate logo ends on a cliff and your process takes off and reimagines it.
AS: Right. I don’t want to just represent logos even though I think there’s a lot of interesting stuff around logos to think about. It’s about walking a tightrope between the identification of the image and, …. the familiarity of these images making it so I can, kind of, push against that quite a lot. So the tightrope is between the identified image and the total gestalt of the abstraction.
Well, what about in your work, because I noticed I looked at some images, and you’re using a, like, a, kind of, armature form, right? Like an architectural form. How would you describe it?
BW: The architectural forms in my work are forms taken out of the digital universe from stock images, screen shots from social networks to old school Nintendo games. I’m interested in the speed of technology and its relentless progress and promise. I’m taking account of the digitization of everything around us and both cheering for it and scrutinizing it through paint, sculpture, and installation.
AS: And, the slowing down is experienced by the viewer of the art, or by you in your way of processing it, or both?
BW: I think it’s both. There are painterly surfaces and physical layers in my work that are constrained by the materials they’re made from and bring us into physical awareness of space. The forms are developed in a process that moves from digital imagery to physical (and back again) allowing me to catalog that unusual relationship between organic and inorganic, natural and material. . In a way, my work is an analog example of the digitization happening all around us - and therefore gives the viewer physical space to think about technological change. We’re very screen-dependent these days and the act of actually seeing is important. That said, I’m a fan of technology and how it can impact the world. This is the first time in human history where a person can literally share an update with thousands of people in milliseconds. At the same time, I’m aware that networks can create a mirror effect – personalized systems become mirrors of our self and could limit how much we see. An example is what we see in a personalized feed on Facebook vs. all the content that exists on the dark internet that’s barely even searchable.
AS: I’m, sort of, fascinated by the difference between your conversation series and the one that I did. Yours is digital and probably reaches, you know, 500 times more people than…or more. But… You know. We didn’t even record them, I don’t think. Maybe we did record. We recorded some of them, anyway.
BW: Yeah, it’s interesting. I value meeting you here in your studio space. The digital experience compliments the physical. We also would have never met if it wasn’t for Austin connecting us over digital.
AS: You know, when Austin made the introduction for us, she said, “Tell jokes.” Did you bring a joke?
BW: I brought croissants with me, but no jokes.
AS: I’m not a funny guy, at all, but…the joke I brought is: Three elephants walked into a bar, and one of them said, “This is a really big bar.” And, what I love about that joke is, well, there’s a lot of things I love about that joke, but it’s how it skips the middle part. It’s like, set-up ... punch line. Set up the… You know, and…
BW: I was wondering when the punchline was going to come.
AS: No, everybody does. And, ultimately, the punch line is just, like, laughing at yourself for not reacting to the fact that three elephants walked into a bar, and you didn’t even notice anything odd about that. You know? It’s never going to happen. But, you know, we’re so used to the set-up of –– da da da da da da, walked into a bar –– that you don’t even…So, that’s my example of minimalism in joke form.
BW: What advice would you have for your 22-year-old self?
AS: That’s a hard question, because then it’s, like, you know, looking back… I mean, you know, do you deal with regret, because…? I mean, I focused a lot of energy on community building projects that were outside the studio. So, I always had a split focus. It’s much less so now. I’m more of a studio artist now, than I was for most of my career as an artist. So, there was something called Four Walls.
BW: Glad, we’re talking about this interesting part of your practice.
AS: It’s no longer, but it ran for quite a long time, and it started in our loft in Hoboken. And Michele and I did it in Hoboken, and then it, at some point, moved to Williamsburg, and I did it with Mike Ballou. Anyway, so, he had heard about what we were doing in Hoboken, and that it had stopped, because we, basically, between Michele and my own studio work and jobs, and I was also showing at a gallery in the city at the time. I mean, we just didn’t have time to keep it going. Bill Arning, who’s mentioned in Michelle Grabner’s interview with you…he loved Four Walls when it was in Hoboken. And, after we stopped doing it… Oh I should probably say what it was. It was a one evening exhibition. And, what would happen is that after a couple of hours of a typical opening, we pulled out benches, and everybody sat down, and there was some kind of exchange.
BW: Love it.
AS: So, it was, like, an opening with an exchange. It was great. It was an amazing format. And, when we stopped doing them, every time I would run into Bill Arning, he would bug me about –– When is it going to start up again? When is it going to start up again? And then, Amy Sillman introduced me to Mike Ballou. She said, “He wants to start something like this in Williamsburg.” And so, he and I did it for a number of years. And Amy was part of running it at one point. And the artist Claire Pentecost as well. But, we did this thing, and we got huge audiences, who came for these crazy exhibition events. Mike and I ended up traveling throughout Europe, because we got invited to go there and do these projects. And, it was a pretty wild time. A lot of careers got started at Four Walls and a lot of people you didn’t expect to come out to Williamsburg, at that time, to do something like that, came out and did stuff. And, it was great.
BW: It reminds me a little bit of a modern-day Austin Thomas – where art is social practice.
AS: Right. Very much in that Austin mold.
BW: I think art as social practice and the importance of community is really important right now.
AS: Right, so that’s what… This is my advice to younger artists… there’s much more to being an artist than making work in the studio, and then finding a gallery to show it. I mean, there’s so much more to it. And you’ve got to make it happen. And you can’t just be… The thing that I tend to get frustrated with artists about, is the extent to which artists are people that like to just wait for something to happen to them…or think that the only way to make something happen is through the art market.
BW: If you want to be a part of something, do it. Be scrappy. Get it done.
AS: Yeah. Also, the other thing is, like, the time to do it is when you’re in your twenties and thirties. Because that’s when you’re connected to a lot of people. And, there’s a lot of energy you get from just, like, … You know, doing something different.
BW: I even look at this conversation project I’m doing as my practice beyond the studio walls.
AS: It is. At the end of a lifetime of being an artist, not that many of us will have become extremely wealthy and very famous, you know. But, hopefully, there will have been, for many of us, epiphanies in the studio, and a lot of really interesting connections to other people. And, I think that that’s one of the great things about being an artist.
BW: How to measure success or happiness?
AS: Community is tremendously important, I think. Yeah. The two projects of mine that have had the biggest impact in that sense, I think, were Four Walls and the Fine Art Adoption Network.
BW: Which is a website as a hub of placing work, right?
AS: Placing art, is a good way to look at it. Without getting any money in return. Another project was a short-lived project that I’m very fond of, called Avatar, in which a theater director friend, Marianne Weems, and I launched a talent agency where actors would be stand-ins for visual artists at all the things that visual artists have to do.
AS: You know who else did it, Andy Warhol did it. He had a guy who put on his wig and did the college lecture circuit. Nobody expected him to really say anything interesting, because Andy never really said much. We launched Avatar at Momenta Gallery, and we had a lot of stuff happen. We had a discussion with the artists/audience and we showed a clip from the movie Scarlet Street, where Edward G. Robinson plays a Sunday painter who has his identity stolen, and we had actors demonstrate how they would impersonate artists. It was a great idea that lasted one night.